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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Ways Instructional Coaches Are Used as Compliance Officers

By Peter DeWitt — November 15, 2015 5 min read
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It’s a common issue. Instructional coaches are hired to “help” teachers become better at their job, and soon teachers find out that the coach’s role is less about support and more about ensuring compliance among the teachers on their caseload. This, of course, creates a huge wedge between the teacher and coach, and the sea of negativity surrounds the coach, which then flows from one room to the next.

As an instructional coaching trainer working with instructional coaching expert Jim Knight, I have seen many cases where coaching is used in ways that contradict Knight’s researched partnership approach. These, less than positive methods, go against the proven ways that would provide the deepest impact to teachers and students.

In Knight’s coaching philosophy, coaches co-construct goals with teachers, or encourage teachers to establish their own goal, and then work in partnership through the instructional coaching improvement cycle. That coaching cycle consists of establishing the goal, then moves on to focusing on the learning that takes place around the goal (i.e. resources, co-teaching, modeling, etc.) and then ends with the coach and teacher being able to see their improvement...which means understanding their impact.

Unfortunately, in many states we live in a time of compliance and accountability. My friend Russell Quaglia (QISA) refers to it as responsibility. Quaglia says,

We need to move from an educational system that is underpinned by testing and accountability, to one of trust and responsibility. When I am tested and accountable, it is seemingly to someone else. However, when I am trusted and held responsible, it is with myself that I am accountable to. And to me, that is the driving force behind motivation."

Too often a teacher’s professionalism is stripped in order to make sure they cover the curriculum that is usually directed by central office. They are given a reputation, because a small group in control believe they know everything. So what’s the best way to prove that we are right...talk about them in a way that keeps pointing them out as wrong.

It’s not that curriculum isn’t important, but it’s not as important as addressing the needs of students through dialogue that might not have anything to do with curriculum, so hopefully the district goal is larger than just curriculum. John Hattie, someone that I work with as a Visible Learning trainer wrote,

At the centre of any curriculum are the expectations of what is to be learned at various milestones. Setting these expectations is the power of curriculum (provided the expectations are constructively aligned to the assessments and resources used in classrooms). Too often, however, curriculum expectations are stipulated in 'years', as if all students in a year cohort are working at the same level" (2015. p. 16).

We should be inspiring a love for learning through multiple ways, and that’s bigger than curriculum and pacing. And we need to be increasing student engagement in the classroom, which is less about the curriculum we cover and more about the relationships with students that we foster.

We need to inspire students to want to create their own curriculum, and that comes at a different pace depending on the student.

Sadly, in these cases where coaches are used more as compliance managers than a resource, teachers understand that the coaches working with them care less about their needs in the classroom, and care more about making sure that district initiatives are being followed. This creates a situation where the teacher no longer wants to work with the coach because as Knight says, “If we insist they will resist,” and “Unless teachers care about a goal they are unlikely to achieve it.”

In too many of these scenarios the teacher is made to look negative. Unfortunately, the true issue lies in the fact that coaches are in roles that are not about pure coaching. They are district compliance officers. There are several ways that coaches are used as compliance officers by the district. They are:

Coaches dictate what teachers need to “cover - Quite often teachers will say that they don’t trust the coaching role because the coach doesn’t talk with them about student engagement as much as they discuss the fact that curriculum needs to be covered. In these days of modules that some schools have purchased, the coaching concern focuses on the teacher keeping pace with their grade level colleagues. Those coaches go back to their district meetings and talk about the teachers that “aren’t keeping pace.” This creates a hostile culture of compliance. Should all students be forced to be at the same pace?

Coaching meetings are used as compliance meetings - Coaching meetings with multiple teachers are a great way to share best practices across grade levels and curricular areas. There are so many coaches who are trying to meet the needs of the high caseloads of teachers they may work with, and coaching meetings are a positive way to meet that need. It provides a great venue for professional development among all stakeholders.

Except when the meetings are about compliance. Each meeting is focused on how teachers are covering the district curriculum. Those teachers who are the cheerleaders are the ones who do most of the talking, and the teachers not keeping pace are put in a negative light.

Coach as administrative confidant - There are coaches who are in the role because they are expert teachers who want to learn from the people who they coach. In Knight’s coaching philosophy the coaching role offers reciprocal learning where coach and teacher walk out of the experience learning from one another.

Other times, however, the coach is used as a confidant for the building administrator or central office. The teachers who are following the curriculum and keeping pace are talked about in a positive light, and the teachers who are more resistant are talked about in a negative light.

In the End

Instructional coaching offers enormous benefits. Teachers can use coaches to find their blind spots in instructional practices that will lead to an increase in student engagement. They work in partnership with one another, and as the coach goes from one room to the next they become the person who can connect teachers to foster improvement, and increase the overall synergy of the staff.

Unfortunately, instructional coaching is getting a bad rap because the coaches are being used to ensure compliance and make sure that teachers are keeping pace. These coaches walk into every situation feeling as if they know everything as opposed to approaching every situation as if they can learn something.

Why can’t we work in a way that will meet the needs of both the central office initiative and help increase the growth of the teacher and coach? If the initiative causes so much angst among staff, perhaps it’s not the teacher...perhaps it’s the initiative? If coaches are only ensuring compliance, it’s not coaching at all.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

For more information about instructional coaching, check out the following resource/pages:

Jim Knight’s Radical Learners Blog

Instructional Coaching Pinterest Page

Instructional Coaching Group Facebook Page

Focus on Teaching downloadable forms. Click on “Chapter Resources.”

Read Chris Cline’s blog offering technology resources for formative assessment

Educoach Instructional Coaching Apps

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.